What’s the Big Idea?
Pop quiz! Bilingualism is:
a. A competitive advantage on college and job applications.
b. Best acquired before the age of six.
c. One area in which Americans are kind of lame.
d. Full of surprising ancillary neurocognitive benefits if acquired early. Bilingual toddlers are better able to process new information, more attuned to what others are thinking and feeling, more in control of their will and attention, and four years slower, once they reach old age, to experience dementia than are their monolingual peers.
e. All of the above.
Yep, it’s ‘e.’ If you’re not romantically involved, but would like to have children someday, maybe it’s time to consider an international dating site. If you’ve got a baby already, and both parents speak only one language, you could order Grimm’s Fairy Tales in Spanish or Mandarin, though a crash course at Berlitz might be better. Babies are hard-wired to attend to their parents’ voices, and can learn a second language best by interacting with them.
According to Princeton Neuroscientist Sam Wang, co-author with Sandra Aamodt of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, the benefits of bilingualism go far beyond the ability to order convincingly at Maxim’s in Paris, or to read Dostoevsky in the original. Bilingual toddlers have an improved ability to resolve “conflict cues.” In other words, their minds are more flexible – better able to unlearn previously learned rules in light of new, conflicting information.
Cognitive science has demonstrated that all learning is, to a great extent, a process of unlearning – of redefining the schema we use to mentally represent and categorize the world. My notion of “teacher,” for example, was shaped and reshaped by every teacher I encountered as a school kid, and was radically transformed once again when I became a teacher for a while myself. According to schema theory, then, bilingual kids have a learning advantage in that their schemata are more flexible than they would be without the benefits of early second-language acquisition.
Bilingual kids are also better, says Wang, at “theory of mind” – the ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling. Theory of mind is closely related to empathy – or “emotional intelligence,” as Howard Gardner put it – a trait that is essential in forming strong relationships and negotiating the social world. Because our personal and professional lives depend to such a great extent on interpersonal relationships, an advanced theory of mind is, to a great extent, a recipe for happiness and success.
Effortful self-control, the wide-ranging benefits of which are addressed in two previous posts on Willpower and Self-Discipline, is also strengthened by early bilingualism. Scientists aren’t sure why, but think it may have to do with the act of concentration involved in switching repeatedly from one language to another.
What’s the Significance?
The significance is enormous. For one thing, these findings make a strong neurocognitive case for globalization, at least in the procreative sense. Or, as an expedient – if imperfect – substitute for those who can afford them, for international nannies. Given China’s astounding economic progress of late, there has no doubt been a spike in Chinese nannies in affluent communities nationwide.
There’s a socio-evolutionary angle here, too. If international couples produce babies with significant cognitive advantages over their peers, then future industries may be dominated by people with an international perspective, who will meet and produce more babies, thereby reshaping the cognitive landscape of our world.
Or maybe not. It is always tempting to rave about how this or that new scientific finding will Reshape the Future of Everything. Still, if you or your partner is fluent in a second language, do your kid a favor – teach it to her.